Life Abroad – 8: OUT INTO THE COLD
Posted on December 26th, 2012

Dr. Tilak Fernando

One thing I soon learnt in London was how much a will power of a person can conquer anything as the English proverb says, where there’s a will, there’s a way!

Confined to a box room most of the time with hardly any space to move about and not mingling much with the local English folk or even attempting to make some enquiries for a better accommodation etc., I was beginning to get depressed.

Generally the English are very conservative; they mind their own business and keep them unto themselves without interfering into others affairs. That is how they are being brought up in a different culture. But, once the ice is broken with an English person he/she could be the most genuine and sincere friend one could find. This I say with my own experience after intermingling with them for years. Some Sri Lankans may argue with me on this point labeling me as a “ƒ”¹…”Kalu Sudda’, but I go by my own experiences and conscience. Equally I accept the fact that any one is entitled and free to their individual opinion in a democratic world!

After immigrating to the UK at first many used the word “ƒ”¹…”discrimination’ at will. I began to realise later that it was a feeling we generated within us against someone else, as a pre-meditated prejudice, due to our own self-created “ƒ”¹…”inferiority’ complex without properly knowing the other person well enough!

If we are intelligent enough or spiritually inclined to realise that composition of the human being is the same within us, whether one is born black, white, brown or yellow, and five fingers in a hand are not the same, then we can leave a broad margin for peoples’ reactions at first. So long as one lives on this planet prejudices bound to exist, equally it would be inversely proportional to the heights of our own egos driving towards misunderstandings.

Multi-cultural Britain

With the “ƒ”¹…”swarming’ of immigrants into Britain over the decades (Margaret Thatcher once used this phrase as Prime Minister and got severely criticised), “ƒ”¹…”skin heads’ (an extremist group of youths) began to harass Asians in East London coining a phrase calling Paki-Bashing. In their eyes all brown skinned people were either Pakistanis or Indian! With immigration figures seemingly going into multiples and many sought refugee status and qualified to have better housing in certain Borough councils, in preference to locals who were in long housing lists for years helped right wing official political parties such as the British National Party (BNP) to become popular with slogans such as: “British mean only white people or other races that were born in Britain and not immigrants”.

Extremists

The BNP with their far-right political ideas was formed as a splinter group from the National Front in 1982. It restricted membership to ‘indigenous British’ people until a 2010 legal challenge to its constitution. The BNP came fifth in the 2008 London Mayoral election with 5.2 percent of the vote, winning a seat in the London Assembly. In 2009, they won their first county council seats and two seats in the European Parliament. During the 2010 General Election, the BNP received 1.9 percent of the vote and failed to win a single seat.

These occurrences started to take place much later during my life abroad but the initial determination to explore all possibilities to combat any racial prejudices finally came to fruition when a charming, middle aged English lady offered me a double room and accepted me as a tenant in her house. It was an old Victorian type house with many rooms on two floors and a basement. Being a widow she rented all spare rooms to students particularly which brought her bread and butter at the end of the week. Normally room rents in the UK are paid weekly and payments are calculated by multiplying the agreed rent by 52 weeks and dividing the sum by 12 to work out an average weekly rent as the landlords are bound to lose when tenants agree to pay on monthly basis when occasionally five weeks go to make a month!

Different environment

Quite different from the box room I shared before, the new double room cheered me up. The Landlady would bring a set of clean, laundered sheets and pillow cases on every Monday morning and collected the rent on Saturday night or on Sunday morning like a ritual. Sharing of her kitchen was permitted and all the crockery and cutlery were supplied by her. Thanks to Mrs. Thompson I soon learnt to discipline myself how to keep the room neat and tidy, the kitchen area spotlessly clean, replace all spoons and knives etc after use where they belonged and to mop the kitchen floor after cooking, a wonderful habit that she ingrained in me. Today when I come across in certain households that children and even adults do not even bother to hold the plate after eating under a running tap but leave everything in a mess nauseates me. In that score dear old Mrs. Thomson will always remain in my memory.

Recommendation by a “ƒ”¹…”good tenant’ was mainly the recipe to find a room to rent. Seemingly after building a rapport with Mrs. Thomson I managed to convince a few more Sri Lankan students to move into her house as she had adequate space in her large Victorian house. “ƒ”¹…”Life abroad’ was getting rather interesting when the Sri Lankan company was expanding seemingly in London.

Hard nut

With the change of circumstances, however, after a happy short term-let, we were compelled to move out to a different location where we found a professional Indian teacher who had come on a work permit and was employed by the Inner London Education Authority. Being a family man he had mortgaged a three bed roomed house and decided to live down stairs with wife and two kids and let the two large bedrooms upstairs to tenants. I rented a double room while the other two Sri Lankan students shared the second room which helped the Indian landlord to pay his mortgage while saving his salary entirely. In contrast to Mrs. Thompson, Shah appeared to be quite different in many ways, from the accent, thinking patterns, behaviour and above all he was a “ƒ”¹…”hard nut’ to crack when it came to renting and facilities offered. In his book, strictly on a professional basis, all tenants had to buy their own bed linen, kitchen utensils, cutlery and crockery and even an iron with strict instructions pasted on a board in the kitchen stating how to use the kitchen at specific given times etc., (as his wife wanted to make chapattis and meat curry in the evenings) and not to use the washing machine more than once a week!

There was no gas or central heating facility in Shah’s house; instead a kerosene heater was given to each room. In the mornings we had to step on to a linoleum-covered freezing floor; washroom was down stairs and due to frugal living by this guy the whole downstairs was like a cold room, except for short spells in the kitchen area when the cooker was on. Toilet pan was like a frozen ice tray and it needed a spray of hot boiling water first thing in the morning before one could use it.

Always thinking of motherland we as students had to struggle, and the life had to go on.

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